Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The history of the toothpick. And gum. And pens

It's time for another look at that genre of books that focus on one animal or mineral or limb and detail - in 350 pages - the larger influence it's had on the world and our culture. There have been famous ones on salt, rats, fat, milk, oysters and pigeons. Among other creatures and inanimate objects.

I wrote about these microhistories previously. But each trip to the bookstore or tour around Amazon brings new titles to the field. Many of them must make writers think, "I wish I'd thought of that." Some of them make people think, "Why'd anyone write about that?" I still want to write one of these someday, but I might be running out of time, as it appears there might not be anything left to analyze.

That's the only conclusion I can draw when seeing the book Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim. Critics love the book. Booklist gave it a starred review. Can't say I've read it.

On a somewhat related note - at least according to Amazon's computers - is Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank. That book came out this year. Three years ago, the similar - but not as creatively titled - book Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born was released. It's hard to see a topic that would be more important than birth - conception, I suppose - and there are actually seemingly countless titles that cover the same ground. Books like Pushed: The Painful Truth About Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care, by Jennifer Block.

Those books can be valuable, especially for those who failed to heed the lessons in Condom: One small item, one giant impact or The Humble Little Condom: A history.

Ever think about the history of the comb? Ever wonder about the developments of plastics in the 19th century that gave us the comb technology we enjoy today? No? Someone did:

One of the longest titles you'll see - and one of the more daring claims - is An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World by Anders Halverson. Have rainbow trout really overrun the world? That makes it sound like they're on the verge of world control, of overtaking humans as the dominant species. That's gotta be at least a generation away.

For the Minnesotan in your life, a good present might be Mosquito: A natural history of our most persistent and deadly foe.

Here's part of the description of a microhistory. Try to figure out the subject.
"The BLANK tells the story of the BLANK's painful development, it's cacophonous launching, the public hysteria accompanying its debut, and its outrageous and scandalous promotion."

Sounds fascinating, right? Maybe a history of Playboy. Or an examination of the creation of the atom bomb. Actually, it's The Incredible Ball Point Pen. I'm a pen guy. So I'd read that book over The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. There's a book on everything. Henry Petroski wrote the pencil book. And he wrote The Toothpick: Technology and Culture. People might mock the titles and question the need for a thorough examination of a piece of wood that removes old pieces of chicken from teeth, but like most of the books listed here, it received outstanding reviews. The LA Times wrote, "Petroski writes...with the observant eye of an engineer and the imaginative heart of a novelist."

With all of these, it's not so much the subject that draws people in, but the writing. A good writer - who's also a thorough researcher - can bring anything to life.

I'll keep searching for a subject, one that's gone unexamined. Something like, The Eyes Have it: A short history of the retina, the world's most important - and misunderstood - tissue. Or The Big Flop: The rise and fall of the floppy disk.

Someone wrote a history of the toothpick. Anything's possible.


Elissa Stein said...

I dream of writing a history of snot but no one's been interested in it. Yet.

Jerry said...

I thought "The Big Flop" would be the Vlade Divac Story.